How Pleasant to Know Mr. Lear*

There was an Old Man with a beard,
Who said, ‘It is just as I feared!

Two Owls and a Hen
Four Larks and a Wren,
Have all built their nests in my beard.

old man.jpg
Original illustration by Edward Lear Source: Google


No this is not 2020 Corona humour, although it pithily describes one of the fallouts of the lockdown! The verse was written by Edward Lear nearly 200 years ago. Lear is popularly associated with the Limerick, and best known for his
A Book of Nonsense, which he also illustrated, that was published 1846.

Limerick is a form of nonsense verse in which the first, second and final lines end with rhyming words, while the third and fourth shorter lines have their own rhyme. In Lear’s limericks the first and last lines usually end with the same word rather than rhyming. For the most part they are truly nonsensical and devoid of any punch line or point.

Interestingly, while he is best remembered for his absurd wit, Edward Lear was a popular and respected painter of his time. Born in London on 12 May 1812, one of 21 children, Lear was forced to start earning a living when he was just 15. This he did by selling his art and by teaching drawing. In 1832 he was employed by the London Zoological Society to illustrate birds, and later went on to work for the Earl of Derby who had a private menagerie on his estate. Lear stayed there until 1836.

Around this time Lear decided to devote himself exclusively to landscape painting (although he continued to write his nonsense verse.)  Between 1837 and 1847 he travelled extensively throughout Europe and Asia. After his return to England, Lear’s travel journals were published in several volumes as The Illustrated Travels of a Landscape Painter. Lear eventually settled, with his cat Foss, in Sanremo on the Mediterranean coast at a villa he named Villa Tennyson after Lord Tennyson whom he admired. He continued to paint seriously till the end of his life in 1888.

Edward Lear had a sickly childhood, and also suffered from epilepsy and depression. But in his verses he poked fun at everything, including himself. His irreverent humour, love for the ridiculous, and cooked-up nonsense words were like cocking a snook at the prissiness and orderliness of the Victorian society that he lived in.  Also different from the expected upright behaviour which was the norm of the period, the characters in his verses often indulge in absurd and outrageous antics.

His love for silly word play “a perpendicular, spicular, orbicular, quadrangular, circular depth of soft mud”;  his weird and wonderful creatures like Moppsikon Floppsikon bear and  “diaphanous doorscraper” (stuffed rhino); the characters with names like Quangle-Wangles, Pobbles, and Jumblies remind me of another favourite—Roald Dahl.

I have always loved the nonsense verse of Edward Lear. I remember memorising and reciting The Owl and the Pussycat, perhaps his most famous poem, when I was in school. The words seemed to frisk and gambol just like the characters.

They dined on mince, and slices of quince,
Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the moon,
The moon,
The moon,
They danced by the light of the moon.

We all need a bit of silliness in our lives, especially in these strange days of uncertainty. Today as we celebrate Lear’s birthday as Limerick Day, also marked as Owl and Pussycat Day, here is my humble offering to the memory of Mr Lear!

There was a wicked virus from Wuhan

Who said its time to cause some mayhem

I’ll travel the world for a lark

And make sure they close every park

That villainous virus from Wuhan.

*How pleasant to know Mr. Lear is the title of Lear’s self-portrait in verse.

–Mamata

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